Local governments hope for solutions to money woes at big confab

Should city and county governments be consolidated?

Should the state Legislature be able to take money from local governments to make ends meet?

Should local governments, not the state, set tax rates for their jurisdictions?

Those are the kinds of questions that will be on the minds of officials from across Nevada when they gather Wednesday in Henderson for a local government summit.

Called the first meeting of its kind in Nevada history, it is expected to draw an unprecedented number of city council and county commission members, including two possible candidates for governor.

Earlier this year, the Legislature ordered studies of the state’s revenue system, the pros and cons of consolidation in Clark and Washoe counties, and the powers allocated, or not allocated, to local governments.

This week’s meeting kicks off what’s expected to be a series of conferences where cities and counties can, perhaps, agree on their stances on those issues.

“We’re there to learn,” said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who said the focus will be on the relationship between local governments and the state.

“We’re the ones who provide the first-responder services, but they’re the ones who fund us. What’s the best way to accomplish this?”

No action will be taken. Instead, attendees will listen to presentations about what’s next in the study process.

“There’s just a lot of concern about the local governments and the state meeting their service obligations,” said David Fraser, executive director of the Nevada League of Cities. “The state is having budgetary issues, and local governments really are swimming in the same revenue stream.”

The issues aren’t new. Consolidation and “home rule,” as it’s called, in which cities and counties have more control over taxing and revenue, have been discussed many times.

So has revamping the tax system. A 2002 legislative study found that the existing mix of tax revenues was not enough to meet the state’s future needs, and that was before the more recent economic woes crashed government budgets.

This year’s tax study sets a broader agenda. In addition to looking at types of taxes, the study calls for projections on “quality of life” programs such as education and social services and a recommendation on those programs’ costs.

Not much was done with those studies, but this time could be different, said Jeff Fontaine, executive director of the Nevada Association of Counties.

“I think that’s part of what this summit is about, is to get that momentum,” he said. “Nevada is a different place than it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.”

Clark County officials will lead a discussion on how the state can collect and disburse revenue in a way that’s efficient and fair for all local governments in this tough economic climate.

Commissioners Rory Reid, an expected candidate for governor, and Larry Brown are expected to participate. Commissioners Lawrence Weekly and Chris Giunchigliani have made tentative plans to attend.

Reid said he knows of no past summit that brought together elected officials and staff from so many local governments. This will help the leaders to coalesce when talking to the state about expanding home rule, he said.

“This is unique,” Reid said. “It’s more effective to speak in one voice rather than competing ones.”

Giunchigliani said a united front makes sense at a time when the state’s 17 counties are struggling.

The state will have another humongous shortfall next budget cycle and will want to dip into local governments’ coffers, she said.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers in search of revenues during the recession took more than $180 million in taxes and fees that Clark County had expected to receive over a two-year period.

To prepare for the next budget shortfall, governments must find ways to raise revenue and cut costs, Giunchigliani said.

Greater autonomy for counties has been studied for decades but has gone nowhere, she said. Counties should have some authority to raise taxes and revenue without the state’s approval, she said.

Both Reid and Giunchigliani think it would be more efficient to consolidate services, similar to the police, water authority and health district.

They were referring to the Metropolitan Police Department, which was created from the Las Vegas Police Department and Clark County Sheriff’s Department; the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which consolidated the valley’s water supply systems under one umbrella; and the Southern Nevada Health District, which was created from the county health department and health departments of several cities in the valley.

“I think Southern Nevada has done a pretty good job of consolidating, but there’s more to do,” Reid said.

North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck said she plans to talk about revenue at Wednesday’s gathering. North Las Vegas has long complained that it receives a smaller share of consolidated tax revenue per capita than other Southern Nevada cities.

“We’ve always gotten a raw deal,” Buck said.

Buck has some concerns about consolidation — “there are things I would never consider consolidating,” such as police and firefighting services, she said — and said home rule is “something that needs to be explored and evaluated.

Goodman has evaluated consolidation and home rule and is firmly in favor of both.

Consolidating local governments means a bigger entity with more political clout, he has said. And he has long advocated for home rule, noting that “we have very little ability to raise any revenue whatsoever.”

“That is something I would like to see,” Goodman said. “If I ever ran for political office other than mayor, I would try to really get a better balance between the cities, the counties and the state.”

Goodman is pondering a run for the governor’s office.

Not everyone will share his view, he added.

“Sometimes, you get what you wish for,” he said. “If they gave us home rule ... then with the good comes certain obligations that perhaps some cities don’t want to undertake at this point.”

Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen could not be reached for comment.

Review-Journal reporters Scott Wyland, Henry Brean and Lynnette Curtis contributed to this report. Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.